When you care enough not to give just “stuff”

By Mir
October 15, 2008

Look; I’m a fan of stuff. I like having pretty new shoes and fun little gadgets. No one is ever going to accuse me of being some sort of ascetic. And there’s nothing wrong, per se, with wanting to have nice things. The problem comes, of course, when we have too many things, and/or when things start becoming more important than… well, other things. Things which are not things. Things that are experiences and emotions and all of that.

Okay, I’m not particularly poetic or anything. Let’s take a look at Sheryl‘s question:

Christmas will soon be upon us, and I was wondering if you and/or your readers have any “alternative” ideas for how to spend Christmas. My son is the poster child for American consumerism, and already has a Christmas list a mile long. It’s not necessarily that we want to spend less money on Christmas presents (although that’s always a plus), but the kids don’t really play with the presents they get (come March, I bet they couldn’t even tell you what they received), and there’s not much to our Christmas memories beyond the thrill of tearing through wrapping paper. My parents are anti-religion, and we stay with them (out of town) over Christmas, so any church or charitable activities are out. My mom is a wee bit materialistic too, and balked at the idea that we make presents. I was thinking maybe we could use money we’d normally spend on presents and maybe take a weekend trip, or something… It just seems like making a nice memory would be remembered more fondly than quickly-forgotten presents.

First off, I want to say that I love that Sheryl is trying to think of some great, memory-making alternatives, here.

Next, I think there are really two issues at play in this situation: First, that Sheryl wants to do some sort of ungifting activity; and second, that they’ll be spending the holidays with her parents, whose philosophy is… somewhat different.

Without assuming too much about how Sheryl views “church or charitable activities,” I’m just going to point out that—short of serving Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen—most of the charitable endeavors working towards helping folks over the holidays desperately need assistance well in advance of Christmas, itself. So if Sheryl wants her kids to experience serving food or ringing a Salvation Army bell or filling shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, there are plenty of ways to work that in before you take off to visit with the parents. Just sayin’.

As for the holiday itself, I don’t know how much help you really need from me, Sheryl. You’re absolutely on the right track: Making a memory rather than a purchase is a great way to nourish your family without accumulating more things. I love the idea of a trip, personally. I also love the idea of a “family present,” like buying a Wii for the whole family to enjoy instead of smaller presents for everyone. (Okay, I have Wiis on the brain. You can change that to whatever makes sense for your family, obviously.) My kids are dying for a fancy tree house, for example; it may be that my husband agrees to make it a summer project with them, and we can spend the winter dreaming it up.

I really like the idea of something the family can enjoy together that doesn’t have to happen just over the holidays. What if you all decided to get season ski passes, or some other sort of membership to a place/activity you all love?

For the “materialistic parents,” my advice is to practice your ear-to-ear grin. Do what works for you and your family, and smile calmly in the face of consternation and pretend you don’t notice that you’re being judged. Start rehearsing now and you’ll have it down-pat before you head over the river and through the woods.

Readers, do you have other suggestions?


  1. Even though our family is relatively small, we now do a name draw for the adults (my husband, parents, grandparents & aunt & uncle). From an adult standpoint–that helps us IMMENSELY on the stress and $$ front and I feel like it sets a good example that WE don’t need buckets and buckets of STUFF and we still have a fine holiday. Since my daughter was born (8 years now), we spend every New Year’s at the beach (we live in the NW). It’s a gift to the whole family and we rent a huge house, etc., and stay for about 4 or 5 days. It’s something that everyone looks forward to and I think if it’s a question of no gifts or our beach trip–we’d all take the beach trip.

    Re: the grandparents. There are those who roll who really feel as though buying in excess is their God-given right as a grandparent. I don’t agree, but hey–I’m not the grandparent. You can always GUIDE and really look at the stuff that the kids really, really want and put that in the g-p’s court. My Mother-in-law felt as though she could buy whatever she wanted, and that was her perogative as the grandma–if that’s the case then you just have to deal.

  2. I watched the movie “Dan in Real Life” and they did a talent show when the family gets together. Everyone dressed up for their act and had however long they needed on stage. There was everything from songs to animal noises.It was really cute.

    I love the idea of taking a trip though. The experiences and stories afterwards are more rewarding than the little trinket you bring home.

    Oh, how about making care packages for soldiers over seas. I have 2 great friends over there I could hook you up with.

    Any one interested in baking? Maybe try cooking/baking a new recipe together. Or have a lemonade & cookie stand on the corner. (not sure where you live though…might be a lot colder than in Texas!)

    Maybe everyone learns to paint. Buy a book on watercolor or acrylics (both water soluble and fairly cheap). Also get a pad of watercolor paper or some canvas’ and set up a little studio with brushes and jars of water. Maybe grab some big tablets and crayons for the little ones and some aprons for all and let loose. Set up a little still life of christmas items or random things from around the house for all to draw. Depending on the level of talent, you could have group of artists in a hat and each person drew an artists name and had to paint the still life in the style of that artist. At the end of the day you could have an auction or trade paintings so the memories of they day are shared and enjoyed for years to come.

  3. If you have to give a “thing” and can’t get away from doing actual unwrap-the-box presents but want it to be more about family and memories you could do picture books for your parents. We have made a couple family books of pictures on blurb.com and they are really special (there are a bunch of online places that do them but Blurb is the best deal I have found so far). Even my kids love to look through the books from family vacations from time to time. Hopefully they will have some good coupons/specials before the holidays too! 😀

  4. I love the idea of using the money to take a trip. I think making memories is the key to a great holiday — you’re on the right track there! In our extended family we don’t give gifts at all anymore (though the child cousins exchange names). For a while we’d all put $20 in a pot and draw one person’s name. The money would go to the charity of that person’s choosing. Now we just get together and enjoy each other’s company.

    With our immediate family, we’ve tried to cultivate some traditions that our kids will remember. We put together gingerbread houses, make and decorate cut out cookies, drive around to look at lights, have an advent calendar to count down the days, have an extra special breakfast on Christmas Day, go to church with the extended family and celebrate with them on Christmas Eve, wear matching holiday pajamas on Christmas Eve night (of course that involves $$), make various kinds of candy, participate in a neighborhood “secret santa” activity, attend the Nutcracker ballet together, keep our stash of holiday books by the fireplace and read one each night after dinner, etc.

  5. We’ve given to charities associated with family members’ interests before (animal shelters, Habitat, etc) but more recently we’ve focused on Heifer International. We particularly like Heifer because it’s a program that helps families become self-sustaining through farming and agriculture. It also keeps our kids interested because they can see where their donation goes – you can “buy” a cow, or a goat (or a portion towards an animal) for a family in another country. We try to collect loose change for several months to see how much we can put together to “buy.”

    There’s also the subtext, such as when we “bought” my very stubborn sister a goat, but that’s neither here nor there 🙂

  6. I second Mir’s suggestion of helping charities ahead of time. Perhaps you could help in a soup kitchen or visit kids in the hospital or something… and then turn that into a lesson at home where the kids help you go through their toys and give away toys to some less fortunate folks. Maybe you already do this, though… (I’m not sure what ages your children are, so they might be a little young, but from the sounds of it, maybe not!)

    One of the things we do in our family is to limit the NUMBER of presents purchased… this is helped greatly by my mother’s absolute insistence that we go around the room taking turns opening one present at a time. This takes HOURS, simply due to the number of people in our family who gather in the same house for Christmas (my four grandparents, my parents, my siblings, one aunt, one cousin, and the three of us – 14 people in all). What I REALLY like about it is that each person gets to see others open the gift that they gave. For me, the best part about giving a gift is seeing that person’s reaction to it.

  7. We tend to do the save the money and take a trip as a family together thing for most all holidays (birthdays, anniversarys, etc).

    One year we (my immediate and extended family because it ended up being a lot of stuff) adopted a needy family (a single mother with absolutely nothing who was also raising her sister’s child) and fulfilled their wish list. This list was not filled with Legos or video games, these people were asking for underwear, dog food, tampons, laundry soap, etc. and a few “fun” things for the kids to open. The mother asked for nothing fun for herself, though I think we ended up getting her something special anyway. It was so rewarding to go shopping for these items and I wonder if Sheryl took her son with her to help explain why they were getting these items, it might be a fun, yet meaningful, experience for them all.

  8. I want to echo the call to check out Heifer International. My son loves picking out the animals and deciding which one each grandparent or aunt should receive. He also got to pick out an animal that he wanted to “get”.

    Another idea I stole from a friend is to save all the charity pitches you get over the next two months and sit down with your child and discuss them. I give my son a sum of money each year(in the form of checks I would write) and said he could divide it up any way he wanted to give to the charities of his choice. Last year he picked autism (in honor of his half-brother), wildlife (goota love the wolves) and St. Jude Hospital. We sent checks to all three groups in his name as part of his gift. He also gets information from the charities over the year. After several years, he now reminds me to start saving the requests.

  9. One of my friends is from a large family and they draw names for the adults. They only buy one present, but they buy each family member stocking stuffers. They turn out the lights and stuff one anothers stockings and have fun with little stuff.

    There should be lots of local activities from visiting a Christmas themed area to enjoying a concert.

    Another friend of mine, they take a family vacation every other year.

    We do a lot of religious activities, so I don’t know if the suggestions would help, but we have an advent wreath and light the candles, we read stories, we keep an advent calendar (the kind with candy), etc. I bake my neighbors a loaf of pumpkin bread every year and we deliver that Christmas week.

    My husband’s family always had the tradition of seeing a movie together on Christmas day.

    Start some traditions. Those are the things your children will carry with them. One of my friends said she buys her children an ornament every year that they will be able to have for their own tree some day. I LOVED this idea and have started doing this. Bake cookies with your kids. Pull out family photos. Go downtown and drive around to see the lights.

    As far as gifts go, maybe focus on one big present and then keep the rest small. We actually put away all of the presents after the second day and only pull them out periodically. So in March we’ll pull something out and it’s like its Christmas all over again!

  10. This year, I think I’ll be doing a lot of “shopping” at http://www.changingthepresent.org , which is sort of a one-stop shop for charitable gifts. What I like about this site is that there are a lot of different organizations represented, and gifts are available at all price points, from $1 to hundreds of dollars. My plan is to make a number of really small donations, for friends and people in that tier of giving where I want to make some sort of effort, just a bit more than just sending a card… I think it’ll be very cool to send my Christmas card with a note inside saying something like “school supplies for three impoverished children in Argentina have been donated in your name.”

    As someone in the travel industry, I definitely think family trips are a fantastic idea! We did a big family cruise one year, which was perfect… we could have time apart, when we needed it, but we all gathered for dinner every night.

    Memberships to museums, zoos, or aquariums are great gifts for families.

    More ideas: theater tickets, movie passes, or Entertainment books. Spa gift certificates, or just get all the girls in the family together and go out for pedicures. (Most nail salons don’t mind if you bring in a bottle of champagne… just ask first.)

    One of the best gifts I get each year is my mom’s “big gift” to us as a couple… once a month we get to go out to dinner on her dime, and when we lived in the same city, the gift also included her babysitting for us while we were out. SO awesome.

  11. I like your idea of taking a trip, and I really like Summer’s idea of getting passes for zoos, museums, etc. for families–great idea!
    I agree with the others that you can do charity things well before Christmas. One thing I’d like to do with my boys as they get older is to have them choose something off their looong Christmas list to buy and give as a gift to a less fortunate child.
    I also do not think that charitable activities have to have anything to do with church and religion. I’m a Christian, but giving–time, money, etc.–is something we should all be willing to do, not just for religion’s sake. 🙂

  12. Summer, I am now thinking about subtle ways to email your comment to my own parents. That “big gift” at the end is nothing short of brilliant.

  13. Well Sherris parents are anti religious? But is her immediate family anti religious too? it may be time to switch to visiting at Thanksgiving. There are so many memories to be made at Christmas. I get the girls involved making the shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. I love to attend at least one Christmas pageant, and drive thru live nativity, caroling, baking cookies, gingerbread houses. I suggested to my family this year that when we gather for brunch that we each bring photos of Christmas’ past and we can assemble an album. Honestly, if Christmas is celebrated without the true meaning, its hard to steer away from the commercialism and consumer products.

  14. What about making ornaments together each year along a theme – maybe related to something that happened that year.

    Like this year we went on vacation to the beach, make beach theme ornaments.

  15. our family gives books for Christmas. One book from each person to each person. There’s a lot of ore-season planning to make sure everybody doesn’t give the same book to one person so we talk to each other a little more than we might otherwise. For our summer beach trip, we bring some of the books and swap. Some books are kept and some are donated to the library booksale, but most are read. It has improved the enjoyment (and reduced the anxiety) of the holiday immensely since we made the switch.

  16. Our family supports a family in Mississippi through The Box Project. (boxproject.org) We do it year round, but you can also be a Christmas sponsor. You can read about the program on their website. There is a fee to get a family assignment, and it is well worth it. We enjoy packing up a box each month to send to the family we’re supporting and the kids (mine and the MS family) share notes back and forth. It’s been eye opening.

  17. Check out Goodwill, they have a program where you get a box, then fill it with stuff for a needy family, then the box itself turns into a dollhouse for the recipients’ children.

    The gift that keeps on giving.

  18. We also have helped a family in Mississippi through the Box Project and have been doing it for about 5 years. I like the fact that I am teaching my children the joy of giving not just at Christmas time, but throughout the year. Our families share letters back and forth and my kids (at least my oldest one) are coming to learn how truly fortunate they are to have all the luxuries that we do. We’ll be out shopping and he now wants to pick things up for “our friends in Mississippi” 🙂

  19. We save items all year long for Operation Christmas Child, a great program that I think truly teaches kids about giving. My 8-yr-old often hands me a pencil he won at school or an unopened Happy Meal toy and says “Shoebox.” I know that means he wants to put it into our stash for kids who have far less than he does. I love Heifer Intl. too.

    My 2 brothers-in-law are impossible to shop for, and last Christmas we gave them Season passes to Six Flags. We were able to enjoy a few trips together and it resulted in some great photos and memories. (I think we got them at an amazing price in Sept??)

    Photo books are a wonderful gift and keepsake as well. Even better would be a trip AND a photo book capturing all the memories.

    My 8-yr-old is not materialistic (not to brag…that’s just how he’s wired) and I find it’s harder to get gifts for him. A great family board game often goes over well. He does an ornament exchange with his 5 cousins who live on the West Coast.

    Perhaps also when you staying at your parents house you could do something meaningful together, such as building a gingerbread house, etc.

    Family is never easy!

  20. Ha to CuriousParty’s comment re: Summer’s comment–I was having the same thought!

    Also–my Mom takes us every year (and we’re in our late twenties and still doing it) to get an ornament. The goal was to have a “starter set” of ornaments when we moved out. Now we’re moved out, and I and my husband actually have two trees, but I love those once-a-year ornaments so much because of all the memories. My tactic was always to get an ornament representing something big that happened to me that year. It’s fun now to unpack them and think, “Oh, that was the year I joined my sorority–2001” or “That was the year I started teaching–2004.”

    Now my husband and I give each other one ornament every year, too–he are always gets me hearts (aww) and it’s just a sweet memory when we’re unpacking ornaments.

  21. We used to adopt a family through St. Vincent de Paul. We had the names and ages of the parent and children and a short list for each child. At first it was just our family, and my parents let us help pick out gifts and we all helped wrap them. Later, we began collecting money from our entire family and we were able to help larger families, or sometimes more than one. If you do this for a year or two, you might help remind your kids more gently of what’s important as you scale back Christmas, rather than going cold turkey.

  22. Ditto Operation Christmas Child! One of my favorite charities! When distributing weekly allowance, Man Cub and Girl Child put the cash into three different piggy banks–saving, spending, and giving. They use the giving cash to buy gifts of their choosing to fill the plastic shoeboxes (which they also purchase) as well as paying for the cost of the shipping. They look forward every year to sending a gift to their “friends across the ocean.” I also make sure they are included in bringing the boxes to the collection site. One year they were invited to tour the warehouse where the boxes were being collected and prepared for shipping. That made quite an impression!

    You could also have a Christmas Party and invite family and friends. On your invitation you could request that instead of bringing gifts to exchange, that guests bring something to donate. You could collect books to donate to an inner-city school, canned or dry goods for a food pantry, or presents to take to the oncology or pediatric ward of your local hospital. I was very sick in the hospital at Christmas after Man Cub was born. Carolers stopped by my room with a note and a teddy bear. I still have it and I can’t tell you what it did for my spirit!! If you are specific in your invitation about the charity of your choice, and the kinds of donations you are looking for, I bet you’d be surprised at how much you collect!! Your kids will get to enjoy the party and feel good about helping others at the same time. Precious memories!!

  23. sheryl, i don’t have any suggestions for you, but i will sympathize that’s it’s very difficult to have uncooperative family; it’s difficult to buck the system; it’s difficult to have family whose beliefs are so different or who mock your beliefs and won’t honor them. and all of this is compounded when you have children who love their grandparents but whom you would like to guide in a different direction.

    maybe you and your husband could prayerfully consider changing your christmas all together and not spending so much time at your mom’s — though i know that’s it’s own war, too. you’ll have to weigh what you want things to look like in 10 years with your own family.

    blessings to you. . .

  24. Operation Christmas Child is a wonderful idea. This is something I’m going to do with my 4 year old daughter, and I think it will become a Christmas tradition. Thank you for the idea 🙂

  25. Thank you so much for the references to the boxproject.org. I am fascinated. I’m going to approach my husband about this idea. (Read Lisa B.’s testimonial under What’s Happening if you want to see how this kind of relationship could impact your kids. I am SO floored and encouraged.)

  26. When I was little, my father would number every present under the tree and keep a master list in his pocket. For weeks up until Christmas, the game was to get the master list. We never did. The trick was, you could sneak and open present number 11, only to find uncle’s new socks. The genius of it all, was on Christmas morning finding the number you were told to go get. Then, you wouldn’t get another number until after breakfast or until you pretended to really appreciate your new underware. It shifted the focus from tearing off wrapping paper, to finding your presents. I’ve waited until my son is old enough now to do it with him and it was a hit. I can see fewer gifts for Christmas, but I can’t imagine none at all.

  27. Melissa, that is a great idea numbering the presents. No more kids piling up their presents and comparing the amount and sizes, etc. I love it! I think I’ll do it this year.

  28. My daughter, the amateur photographer of the family, makes calendars each year. She makes one for my side of the family, and one for my husband’s parents and brother. She takes pride in making these, and the family takes pride in displaying her work on their walls.

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